last website update 08/05/2020
Generally speaking, I tend to emphasize the positive in life with my music, and thus lightness and humor are not foreign to me. However, for no apparent reason, echo yes no (2019) for two harps and live electronics, as with my Piangerò la sorte mia (2018) for mezzo soprano and ensemble, originates from a darker place—"Worry, don’t be happy". echo yes no was commissioned by the harp duo Aecstasy—Alice Belugou and Estelle Costanzo—with the intention of performing it before or after Karlheinz Stockhausen's JOY (FREUDE) for two harps. Thus, my work is complementary to JOY but musically makes no reference to it except through the instrumentation. There is therefore no joyous anticipation, no joyful citation, and no tears of joy. Instead, echo yes no an inner struggle with a difficult, momentous decision, supported by a touch of hope and confidence in redemption from inner turmoil.
- Mike Svoboda, May 2019
"I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet." - Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963), page 73.
The process pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen, such as Plus-Minus (1963), Prozession (1967), or Spiral, (1968) transfer to the performers an unusually large amount of responsibility regarding the sound material and its transformations. In this context, one could say that the performers are co-composers, or at the least arrangers, since they determine to a great extent not only the content, but also the form of the composition. Generally, the transformation of the material is notated using “plus” and “minus” signs indicating an increase or decrease of certain parameters of the sound in relation to the previous one. I must admit that while performing these works myself, I was at the same time equally inspired and thoroughly frustrated. It is an amazing process to go through as a player, but very difficult, if not entirely impossible, to precisely realize the instructions in the score in the spontaneous context of a concert performance. Perhaps there is no need for frustration here, and it might indeed be very much in the spirit of these works to not sweat the details, but instead to go with flow and energy of the process, in the gusto of the 60s, when New Music was new, the time from which these pieces come.
Wishing to give the performers a similar amount of freedom and responsibility in Homo Ludens, but wanting to largely avoid the chaotic soundscape that often ensues with that freedom, I devised a collection of five games and processes for the two teams of musicians to choose from, which can be combined in various ways. There are HUDDLEs, which incorporate the two teams together as a unit, and MATCHES, a series of duets between one musician of each team. SHUFFLEs are trios played within a single team. SOLITAIREs are soli played during MATCHES or SHUFFLES, both of which are based on Stockhausen-like “plus” and “minus” parametric permutations. Finally, the REBOUNDs are a kind of Butch Morris-style „conduction“ in which the ensemble reacts to the soloist standing on a special section of a playing field. Homo Ludens is inspired by game theory, and the title refers to the book by cultural theorist Johan Huizinga (1938/39) in which the author describes five characteristics that play must have, which I found inspirational in this context: 1. Play is free, and is in fact freedom. 2. Play is not "ordinary" or "real" life. 3. Play is distinct from "ordinary" life in terms of both locality and duration. 4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme. 5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it. (Even though I often joke that I don’t work, but rather play for a living, point number 5 doesn’t really apply in a professional setting, obviously.) As any American watching a cricket match or a German trying to follow a baseball game will tell you, the first 15 minutes might be fun, but boredom sets in fairly quickly if one doesn’t understand the rules. Since I don’t have the space here to disclose the rules of the five games played in Homo Ludens, I must trust that the interpersonal dynamic and musical content in Homo Ludens itself will hold the attention of the audience, many of whom will surely figure out a few of the rules. After all, it’s not rocket science.
Last summer was the time to sit down and write some sad music. My composition for mezzo-soprano and six instruments, Piangeró la sorte mia, like the aria of the same name for Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1723) by Georg Friedrich Handel, is based on a text from Nicola Francesco Hamm. Direct and unpretentious, the music is intended to be a vehicle for the singer‘s expression and virtuosity, as the tradition is. Without quoting a note of his music, I follow the ductus and form of Handel‘s aria: A-B-A‘, slow-fast-slow. If some listeners hear a bit of Handel while listening to my Piangeró, that would be an unintended but acceptable additive, and certainly better than thinking of their tax return or if the babysitter is doing the dishes. Written for the singer Anne-May Krüger and the Basel ensemble neuVerband, Piangeró la sorte mia is dedicated to persons who find themselves in a „worry-don‘t-be-happy“ moment in their lives. I would like to say to them, go ahead and cry, wail, be full of despair (part A). Sooner or later there will be a sliver of hope, even if it is in the disguise of revenge (part B). And if you still feel the urge to worry and whine, then have a second portion (part A’).
Piangerò la sorte mia,
sì crudele e tanto ria,
finché vita in petto avrò.
Ma poi morta, d'ogn'intorno
il tiranno e notte e giorno
fatta spettro agiterò.
I will lament my destiny,
so cruel and so unfortunate,
as long as my heart beats.
But when I am dead,
from all sides my ghost will haunt
the tyrant both night and day.
(translation Anna Maria Pherson)
In celebration of their 30-year ensemble anniversary, the Swedish brass quintet Stockholm Chamber Brass asked me to write a work for them. They gave me no limitations, no stipulations, and didn't seem to have any expectations of the composition other than that it be worth the effort they would put into performing it. I was honored by the proposition, and it was quickly evident to me that my composition for such a jubilee could go either of two ways: I could write a party piece, something fun, short, and sweet, or I could write something intricate and challenging, a musical endeavor that taps into their tremendous chamber music artistry. Out of respect for the idealism, stamina, optimism, and enthusiasm each member must channel to an ensemble, I decided to write a demanding piece of 20-some minutes. The decision was easy. Figuring out what to call the piece was not. Before the title Open Circle crystallized, I thought to call it What it takes, because this group obviously has what it takes to keep the ensemble ideal alive for 30 years. Then I thought to call it !, because in a performance, a brass player needs to be an exclamation point and not a question mark – a geeky insider theme that the trombonist of the quintet, Jonas Bylund, and I spoke about in the summer when I was composing the piece. The composition, however, is a sort of portrait of Stockholm Chamber Brass, and at the same time a depiction of the roles that the musicians play within the ensemble. Punctuated with ensemble passages, each player takes the stage for a solo, supported by the rest of the group. Uncharacteristically for me, but out of personal affinity for ensemble, I have given many of these soli and interludes descriptive captions such as "decisive, yet flexible“, "... with patience..." , "brilliant, but modest“, "warm, but mighty", or "impassioned, yet reasonable". Being a brass player myself, I could almost feel the player producing the sounds I was writing down. Furthermore, I found myself inside the ensemble and could reflect about what it means to communicate in a chamber music setting. The musicians huddle together, they discuss, they empathize, they compromise, they get „on the same page“ – all this mostly through non-verbal means. A well-functioning chamber music group can be a small version of a social idyll, self-contained and balanced, like a circle. Yet the musicians do all of this, not for themselves, of course, but for the audience, opening the circle to include you, the listener; therefore the title, Open Circle.
The "Techniques of Trombone Playing" published in 2017 in the Bärenreiter series was award the Best Edition Prize from the German Musikedition society.